寧波, from there, you had to take a long, slow boat ride - if memory serves, 12 hours
- to get to the small mystical island.
There were no clear roads back then - so rough hiking was required just to get to a temple. It was a long hike lasting days, going from temple to temple, saying prayers and burning incense. It was no easy feat, either. You literally had to climb mountains to get to your destination. My mom had me and my brothers in tow during one trip, and now that I further think about it, that in itself was a miracle and a testament to my mother's determination. We were all barely adolescents at that time.
During my first trip, I couldn't hike, since I was too small, so they had to employ 2 people to carry a transportable chair to carry me through the mountains. It was quite embarrassing, since I was pretty much more than eye level than everyone else - carried around like a king. But there wasn't many pilgrims back then. It was a quiet countryside, where prayers were done solemnly and in silence, and so I was able to only cook my embarrassment by myself with no more than a few laughs and odd glances.
We lived inside the monastery each time. The rooms were wooden and cold, back then. Sleeping happens at 6pm, waking up at 3am, and a morning prayer at 4am. I remember I loved the food there, and the weather was always spectacular - it was always cool and slightly windy, and the vegetables always felt like they were all freshly taken out of the ground and straight into the pan. Everyone was polite and reverent ... it was like stepping into another magical world. The vegetables were nothing like those you found anywhere else in China, were they've probably been grown for their economic value - money, rather than the quality. The vegetables in looked like they were taken care of, very carefully and lovingly, because the ones who will be consuming them would be the monks themselves.
I remember many of their faces, but none of their names. There would always be one monk to accompany us to all the temples in the island. They helped us, and lead us the way, and I've grown to love and be accustomed to many of them, always remembering them with a soft spot. They were always patient. I wished I could have taken photos with each of them, every year that I went there, afterwards. Even if I could not remember their names, then at least their faces wouldn't be so blurry to me, in my memory.
But I always remember one in particular... I think he was there at the beginning. He was the one who greeted and welcomed me everytime. He was from a province near Shanghai. I'm not quite sure actually why I always remember him, but I always do, and with a tender fondness. He was always the teaching, wise old sage that tries to nurtures calm to a young child. He was the one thing that reminded me of Putuoshan.
Fast forward to 2009. I have not been there for many years since I have graduated university, and started working. It now takes less than 4 hours to get from Hong Kong border to 舟山
via a plane ride, and a quick 15 minute ferry to . There are cars to drive you to most of the major temples, and you would be able to get to most of them within a day, and be back by Monday in time for work. Students and tourists come on the weekends, ferry loads of them, like the place was a tourist attraction. An abomination in my book.
Where have the reverence, piety and silence gone?
And yet, this is the first year that I will be coming not as a child, or an adolescent, or a teenager, or a working yuppie, but as a wife to a husband. The roads and paths are different, the atmosphere's different, the people are different, if not overwhelming in number. Even the newer, younger monks look grumpier than usual.. but in a deplorable, angsty, modern sense. (Trust me, there were nasty monks back then. Butwhen I say nasty, I mean, really "get out of the shrine and the head monk's way, or I will kick you 10 feet from here - I'm SERIOUS" kind of nasty.) It was all very depressing.
But before then end of the trip... I've had the fortunate chance to met with the sagely, kind old monk. I may have grown taller, and matured with age, but I always remember being a child when I do meet him - I have grown much, and and so has he, but our relation has not. I met him again, with my husband... and, he is still the sage, and I, the young 4 year old child. He may look like he is aging - and yes, he has been sickly a few years back with some serious health problems - but I was happy to see him this year looking quite healthy and looking as much like I remembered him when I was 4. And then, I was relieved from my worries.
the place may have been transformed to a concrete, infrastructured place like any other city in the Mainland, with even hotels to boot - I am glad, that despite the new faces and younger generation of monks - even they seem hasty and modern to me - the memory that I've always known, are still there. The heart of the place remains the same, as it was back when I was a child. No one will touch that.